Technically Sound Professional to an Incompetent Leader

We’ve all witnessed this. A technically sound professional gets elevated to a spot in senior leadership. And then things begin to unwind. While they might be excellent in their technical expertise, they are bad at handling people. 

We often think that intelligent, positive people will simply pick up the skills of people leadership. A few do. Most don’t. We end up with a superior leadership team with poor skills handling the charge of guiding the company to fulfill its goals and find themselves tripping on getting it done. Not because they aren’t clever, but because they haven’t cracked how to leverage people and the invisible force of culture. It’s a sad struggle for all.

If you’re in the hiring team, this can be extremely draining. Particularly if you have the answers to their ills, namely a wonderful leadership development program. This is when you often get one of two responses:

“I don’t need to do the fundamentals of people management. I’m an accomplished leader!” or “I’m too busy to do the training.”

If you’re the CEO these responses can be fairly unhealthy. These explanations can weaken any directive from you to initiate development because to do so would symbolize: “You need training because you are inexperienced in my eyes” or “Your priorities are not as valuable as mine”. Not great relationship builders!

What’s actually going on:

  • They don’t feel secure to say ‘I don’t understand how.’ Modern culture may not allow for gaps or notches in performance, particularly if they have been in the role for a while. To acknowledge doubts in their strength over the people stuff casts lies over the whole of their knowledge (so they think).
  • They are experiencing a severe case of imposter syndrome. They’re concerned that at some stage somebody will work out they have no idea how to handle people. They just want to get on and do the technical job, as they did before. It’s more comfortable just looking after our own stuff.
  • Or they might be totally absent! Sometimes if we have very definite technical expertise we have not yet developed the ability of self-awareness, let alone other people’s perception – the fundamentals of good people leadership.

Here’s where we can look to make changes

We need to concentrate on how to make the office secured so senior leaders can feel open to their own development.


What are the leaders being ‘classified’ on? What do they need to address? What is the prize and acknowledgment scheme in the firm? These will encourage appropriate behaviors, sometimes useful to people leadership, oftentimes not. Chances are your policies for the leader’s performance review needs to be redefined and reoriented towards development in culture, not just delivering business results.


Any discussions with senior leaders need to be funneled through two channels. The first is convincing. They’ve got to their job because they have shown capability in at least one area. They have the potential to be excellent as people leaders, as well as technical experts. Convincing them that these are two different skill areas is critical. When we get promoted from expert to leader it’s like rising over from the beginning. We feel like a total novice as we see there is a whole new skill set to learn. Letting them know that this is quite normal – and required – helps diffuse the tension of feeling out of our depth. The second lens is to focus on preview, not review.

We need to honor the joy of understanding people’s stuff. To see someone we manage flourish and thrive under our leadership is one of the most prominent opportunities and joys of leadership. It’s an undiscovered and uncelebrated perspective of leadership. Making these people skills specific, assessable, and liable is crucial to strong leadership improvement pathways.

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